10 Jazz Licks from Beginner to Pro
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Learning to improvise is both exhilarating and frustrating for jazz students. The exhilarating part is that as jazz musicians, we get to go beyond merely listening to jazz. Instead, we get to participate in making it! However, the frustration often creeps in when our improv lines lack an authentic jazz sound. In today’s Quick Tip, 10 Jazz Licks from Beginner to Pro, Jonny teaches 10 amazing jazz licks for students of all levels. Not only can you use these licks straight “off the shelf” in your playing—you’ll also discover why they sound so good! That way, you can apply the same techniques that the pros use to create your own authentic lines. You’ll learn:
- The 10 Jazz Licks
If you think your improv sounds aimless, then it’s time to think differently about improv.
Generally, when we think about learning to improvise, the first thing that comes to mind is scales. And while it’s true that scales are an essential component of improvisation, there’s also much more that goes into constructing effective jazz licks. In fact, thinking of improv merely in terms of a particular scale is like thinking of basketball merely in terms of the ball. In either case, you’ve got to know what to do with it. Consider the following quote by jazz trumpeter and educator Mike Steinel:
“Jazz is a language, a very distinct musical language, and like any language it has its own vocabulary, alphabet, rules of grammar, conventions of use, and common themes.”
—Mike Steinel, jazz educator and author
Steinel goes on to say, “It is clear from listening to young improvisors that many have not become aware of the basic jazz vocabulary. Some have a command of the basic alphabet (scales and chords) and the harmonic grammar of jazz (chord/scale relationships), but they seem to be inventing their own language. Like a small child experimenting with sounds, they haven’t yet identified the basic “words” of jazz.” ¹
Today’s lesson addresses this common experience head on. As we work through the 10 jazz licks in today’s lesson, you’ll discover 10 unique improv techniques that are represented in each lick. As a result, you’ll develop a much more comprehensive understanding of how professional jazz musicians think about improvisation.
All of the jazz licks in today’s lesson are presented in C major. In fact, you can download the complete lesson sheet PDF from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, this lesson includes 4 downloadable backing tracks for you to use while practicing. Moreover, PWJ members can easily change the key of the lesson materials using our Smart Sheet Music.
Alright, let’s begin by examining the harmonic context for our 10 jazz licks.
Each of the 10 licks in today’s lesson are played over a 2-5-1 progression in C major. If you are unfamiliar with this progression, be sure to check out our companion lesson on 2-5-1 Chord Progression—5 Levels from Beginner to Pro. In short, 2-5-1 progressions are the most common chord sequence found in jazz repertoire. Therefore, they provide the perfect harmonic context for shedding jazz licks. The example below shows a 2-5-1 in C major played with root position chords in the left hand on piano.
2-5-1 Progression in C Major
We sometimes refer to the example above as a “long 2-5-1,” because each chord receives a complete measure. In other words, the total duration of a “long 2-5-1” is 4 measures. However, the Great American Songbook is also replete with examples of “medium 2-5-1’s” in which the entire progression is compacted into 2 measures. In fact, some tunes even contain “short 2-5-1’s” which occur over the span of just 4 beats.
All of the licks in today’s lesson are presented in the context of a “long 2-5-1,” as in the example above. However, if you’d like to explore 2-5-1 jazz licks over “medium 2-5-1’s,” check out our lesson on 2-5-1 Jazz Licks for Piano (Beg/Int).
In the next section, you’ll learn 6 different left hand approaches jazz pianists use to play the chords above while accompanying their solo lines.
Professional jazz pianists use a number of different accompaniment techniques when soloing. In fact, several considerations go into choosing which accompaniment a pianist may use at any given time. Some of the most critical considerations include whether the tempo is slower or faster, and whether the performance context is solo or ensemble. An additional consideration for most jazz piano students is their current playing ability. While each of the left-hand examples in this section represent a professional accompaniment approach, some examples are more demanding than others. Therefore, you should choose the accompaniment that is most comfortable for you at this time. You can always bookmark this lesson for future use and try additional accompaniments as your playing ability expands.
One of the most accessible left hand accompaniment techniques is called chord shells. These are minimalistic chord voicings that only require 2 or 3 notes at a time. The 2-note chord shells shown below consists of either of R7 (Root + 7th) or R3 (Root + 3rd). These are sometimes referred to as “Bud Powell Voicings” because he helped to pioneer this approach to comping in the late 1940s. Additional pianists associated with this technique include Thelonious Monk, Duke Jordan and Tadd Dameron. Be sure to notice that for the C6 chord, the chord shell is modified to R6 (Root + 6th).
The “Bud Powell voicings” shown above are perfect for faster tempos. However, you may notice that they sound a bit thin for a ballad setting. Therefore, beginners in search of a fuller sound can use 7th chords and inversions. In this approach, we play the Ⅱ chord and the Ⅰ chords in root position while playing the Ⅴ chord in 2nd inversion. This allows for a smooth transition from chord-to-chord, as in the example below.
7th Chords & Inversions
Note, the specific voicing formula above may be too muddy in some keys, such as G major. In this case, we simply reverse the voicing pattern. For example, we play the Ⅱ chord and the Ⅰ chords in 2nd inversion and the Ⅴ chord in root position. In fact, you can master this approach in our full-length course entitled 2-5-1 7th Chord Exercises (Int).
Now, let’s check out some left-hand options for intermediate pianists.
If you are an intermediate level student, then these accompaniments are for you. First, let’s explore the Root + Guide Tones approach. These 3-note voicing are also considered chord shells, but they use a different construction than the “Bud Powell Voicings” shown previously. Instead, Root + Guide Tones use the Root, 3rd and 7th of each chord. The voicings can either be closed (as in measures 1, 3 and 4 below) or open (as in measure 2). In the open construction, the 3rd of the chord is expanded by an octave to create a 10th interval above the root. Try playing the closed-open-closed format below in C major.
Root + Guide Tones
Similar to our earlier discussion, the closed-open-closed format will not sound ideal in every key. For example, in G major, it sounds better to reverse the format to open-closed-open. This technique is modeled extensively in our course entitled Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones (Int).
Another essential skill for intermediate jazz pianists is the rootless voicings approach. These lush jazz piano voicings include the 3rd and 7th of the chord, plus two additional notes. However, the root is absent from the chord voicing in this approach. These voicings are often associated with the jazz pianist Bill Evans, who helped to popularize this sound in the mid to late 1950s. Other pianists associated with this sound include Red Garland and Wynton Kelly.
Rootless voicings are perfect for ensemble contexts. If you’d like to master rootless voicings on 2-5-1 progressions in every key, then check out our complete course on Major 2-5-1 Rootless Voicings (Int).
Now, let’s check out some additional left-hand options for advanced players.
If you are a more experienced player, then you may want to play a walking bass line in your left hand, particularly if you are playing in a solo piano setting. The example below demonstrates a basic 2-5-1 walking bass line constructed from the Root and 5th of each chord.
Walking Bass Line
In today’s featured Quick Tip video, Jonny also demonstrates a walking bass line with added ghost notes which creates an even stronger jazz swing feel. The example below demonstrates this approach.
Walking Bass Line with Ghost Notes
To learn more about the role of ghost notes in jazz piano phrasing, check out our Quick Tip on Jazz Articulation with Ghost Notes (Int).
Alright, now that you understand the harmonic context of today’s lesson and several different left-hand options, you’re ready to dive into playing Jonny’s 10 jazz licks from beginner to pro. Each lick is notated and demonstrated with rootless voicings in the left hand. However, you can choose to play whichever accompaniment best suits your situation.
Practicing jazz licks like the ones we’re about to examine in this section are an important way in which jazz students acquire an authentic jazz vocabulary. In fact, each of the following licks are based on a specific approach to improvisation. Therefore, as you play each lick, try to visualize how the notes are organized with respect to the harmony and the meter. Once you feel comfortable with a particular lick, you may even want to try transposing it to another key. This will help you internalize the essential melodic principle behind the lick.
Each of the 10 licks and the corresponding melodic approaches are listed below so that you can navigate through the material at will.
Our first three jazz licks are suitable for beginner students. While each lick employs a different improv approach, they also share several unifying principles. For example, each of the beginner licks draw the 7 tones of the C major scale. In addition, these licks do not contain any chromatic tones (aka “accidentals”).
Let’s consider the first lick.
Our first lick uses an improv technique called chord tone targets. In this approach, the improvisor creates a strong sense of linear harmony by aligning chord tones (Root, 3rd 5th or 7th) on the strong beats of the meter—beats 1 and 3. Often, it is the absence of this organizing principle that makes young improvisors sound inept. Instead, they just sort of “noodle around” with a scale. By contrast, professional players spend countless hours practicing lines that are organized in this manner. In Lick #1 below, the circled notes indicate chord tones on strong beats.
Lick #1 – Chord Tone Targets
Of course, you may find some transcriptions of jazz masters that include licks in which a non-chord tone occurs on a strong beat. It isn’t necessary to be dogmatic about chord tone targets. However, this approach is one way in which jazz musicians frequently build lines with linguistic syntax. In fact, throughout today’s lesson, each subsequent improv approach still generally includes this basic paradigm. Once you feel comfortable with Lick #1, see if you can improvise your own line organized around this principle. For example, you could use the same targets tones and simply vary the connecting notes.
For a deep dive of this improv approve approach, check out our course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Chord Tone Targets (Int).
You may have noticed that Lick #1 featured quite a bit of stepwise motion. In fact, players who think primarily in terms of scales tend to gravitate toward stepwise movement. However, professional players also include skips and leaps in their lines by using a technique called outlining chords. This technique involves playing ascending or descending arpeggios over the given chord progression. For example, the first measure of Lick #2 is comprised two ascending Dm7 arpeggios in 1st inversion (F–A–C–D). Similarly, the second measure centers around arpeggiating 4 tones of G9 using the notes B–D–F–A. Finally, the last two measures of Lick #2 outline a C ▵7 chord in various inversions.
Lick #2 – Outlining Chords
The outlining chords approach places chord tones not only on the strong beats, but on every single note! Often times, players will alternate between chord outlines and scalar motion as they change chords to create a sense of variety and balance.
For a deep dive on the outlining chords improv technique, check out our course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Outlining Chords (Int).
Lick #3 is based on a similar organizing principle to Lick #2. However, instead of being restricted to outlining only the current chord, Lick #3 uses an approach that we call outlining diatonic 7th chords. In this approach, jazz musicians outline any of the diatonic 7th chords from the parent key. This approach often involves outlining adjacent diatonic 7th chords. For example, in Lick #3, after an initial ascent over an F▵7 outline, the remaining measures employ descending, adjacent diatonic 7th chord outlines: Dm7→ C▵→Bø7→Am7.
Lick #3 – Outlining Diatonic 7th Chords
For more practice creating lines with the outlining diatonic 7th chords method, check out Lesson 6 in our course on How to Improvise a Solo With the Major Scale 2 (Int/Adv).
Are you ready for the next level? If so, then let’s move on to the next section which covers intermediate jazz licks.
This section on intermediate jazz licks contains 3 additional jazz licks and 3 corresponding improvisational approaches. While each lick employs a slightly different improv approach, they also share several unifying principles. For example, each of these licks are based on a single major scale—C major. However, now at the intermediate level, we will also introduce a touch of chromaticism. To put it more simply, each lick will also contain strategic placement of black keys. However, chromaticism in jazz improv is rarely arbitrary. Instead, these chromatic notes are bound by specific melodic characteristics that give them linguistic syntax.
Let’s consider our first intermediate lick.
Lick #4 employs chromaticism in the form of lower neighbor notes. These chromatic notes approach a chord tone from below by a half-step. As Lick #4 demonstrates, chromatic lower neighbors are often placed on weak beats. For example, in measure 1, the note C ♯ is placed on the “and of 1” and the “and of 2” as a means of approaching the note D, a chord tone, on beat 3. In fact, each of the subsequent accidentals in Lick #4 function in the same manner.
Lick #4 – Lower Neighbors
Next, let’s explore the opposite approach with upper neighbors in Lick #5.
Lick #5 incorporates chromaticism in the form of upper neighbors. Just like lower neighbors, uppers neighbors frequently occur on weak beats. However, upper neighbors approach the target tone from a half-step above.
Lick #5 – Upper Neighbors
For a deep dive on neighbor notes, check out our full-length course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Upper & Lower Neighbors (Adv).
Now that you understand neighbor notes, you ready to learn about the essential jazz improv technique that jazz musicians call enclosure. Essentially, an enclosure precedes a chord tone target with both of its neighbor notes. When the lower neighbor occurs first, we call it a lower enclosure. On the other hand, when the upper neighbor comes first, we call it an upper enclosure. Additional terms for enclosures include encircling tones, rotations and surround notes. Try playing Lick #6 below which uses enclosures to approach a chord tone target for each chord.
Lick #6 – Enclosures
In Lick #6, all of the enclosures use two chromatic tones. However, enclosures can also be created using diatonic neighbors, or by combining a diatonic neighbor and a chromatic neighbor. For a deep dive on enclosures, check out our full-length course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Enclosures (Adv).
Next, we’ll explore more advanced jazz licks and techniques.
This final section on advanced jazz licks contains 4 additional jazz licks and improv approaches. Just like our intermediate licks, each of these advanced licks involves the use of chromaticism. However, the melodic techniques used to accomplish this chromaticism more varied in this section. In addition, these licks also involve more complex rhythms, such as the extensive use of triplets and 16th notes.
Let’s take a look at our first advanced lick.
Lick #7 uses a multi-scale approach. This is distinctly different from the previous sections in which all the essential tones were draw from the same parent scale. Now, we’ll actually use a different scale to improvise over each chord. The chord/scale relationships that Jonny uses in Lick #7 are shown below.
- Dm7: D Minor Bebop Scale…D–E–F–G–A–B–C–C♯ (1–2–3–4–5–6–7–♯7)
- G7: G Altered Scale…G–A♭–B♭–B♮–D♭–E♭–F (1–♭9–♯9–3–♭5–♯5–♭7)
- C▵7:C Major Bebop Scale…C–D–E–F–G–G♯–A–B (1–2–3–4–5–♯5–6–7)
As you examine and listen to Lick #7, notice that the G7 voicing contains the ♭13 so as to agree with the G altered scale in the right hand.
Lick #7 – Multi-Scale Approach
There are different types of bebop scales that jazz musicians use, such as the Minor Bebop Scale, the Dominant Bebop Scale and the Major Bebop Scale. The commonality of these different bebop scales is that they all contain 8 notes rather than 7. This is accomplished by adding a strategically placed chromatic passing tone within the construction of each scale.
To learn more about bebop scales, check out our full-length course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Bebop Scales (Adv).
Lick #7 also includes another scale type—the Altered Scale (aka “fully altered”). This scale, also known as the Super Locrian Mode, comes from the 7th mode of the melodic minor scale. In other words, the G Altered Scale is created by playing an A♭ Melodic Minor Scale (A♭–B♭–C♭–D♭–E♭–F–G) starting on the 7th tone. However, we often use enharmonic spellings when writing out altered scales.
For a deep dive on altered scales, check out our Quick Tip on The Altered Scale—The Complete Guide (Int).
Alright, now you’re ready for another advanced jazz lick.
Lick #8 is based on an improv technique called triad pairs. The term triad pairs describes an improv method that creates angular and modern-sounding improv lines by alternating between two triads. Some players refer to triad pairs as “hidden chords” within the parent scale. In theory, you can pair any two triads from the same parent scale. However, it is most common to choose two triads which don’t have any common tones.
Lick #8 uses the same multi-scale approach as Lick #7. However, these scales are applied using the following triad pairs:
- Dm7: D Minor Bebop Scale…F Major (F–A–C) & A Major (A–C♯–E)
- G7: G Altered Scale…D♭ Major (D♭–F–A♭) & E♭ Major (E♭–G–B♭)
Often times, jazz musicians gravitate toward choosing an upper structure triad for one or both of the triads in a triad pair. An upper structure triad is a triad which contains one or more available extensions (9th, 11th, 13th) or alterations (♭9, ♯9, ♯11, ♭13) for the given chord type. In addition, the upper structure triad cannot contain an avoid note. For example, on the G7 chord, both D♭ major and E♭ major are upper structure triads. The notes of D♭ major include the ♯11, the 7th and the ♭9 of G7. Similarly, the E♭ major contains the ♭13, the root and the ♯9.
Let’s listen to a demonstration of Lick #8.
Lick #8 – Triad Pairs
Notice, Lick #8 ends when the tonic chord arrives. However, the triad pairs method can also be applied over the Ⅰ chord. For example, when improvising on tonic major chords, jazz musicians frequent pair the triads built on the 5th and 6th of the chord. In this case, that pair would be G major (G–B–D) and A minor (A–C–E).
For more practice creating lines with triad pairs, check out Lesson 5 in our course on How to Improvise a Solo With the Major Scale 2 (Int/Adv).
For a deep dive on upper structure triads, check out our course on Coloring Dominant Chords With Upper Structures (Adv).
Alright, now you’re ready to continue on to the next lick.
Lick #9 uses a modern improv approach that jazz musicians call quartal shapes because it involves melodic structures based on stacks of perfect 4ths. In the example below, the brackets indicate melodic fragments comprised of perfect 4ths. Let’s take a listen:
Lick #9 – Quartal Shapes
For addition examples of improv lines using quartal shapes, check out our Quick Tip on Modern Jazz Piano Soloing—Quartal Shapes (Int).
Now, let’s proceed to our final lick.
Lick #10 features a rapid flurry of 16th notes organized by an improv technique called pattern shifting. In this technique, the improvisor selects a specific intervallic pattern and then creates a melodic sequence with it. For example, Lick #10 begins with an initial chord tone and then goes down a whole-step, down a perfect 4th and down another whole step. Afterward, Jonny transposes or “shifts” this entire pattern downward in whole steps. Some of the notes that result from transposing the pattern are outside of the key. However, since this chromaticism occurs within the context of a consistent pattern, these chromatic tones don’t sound as dissonant as they otherwise might.
Let’s take a listen to Lick #10. Note, each bracket in the notation below indicates an occurrence of the given pattern.
Lick #10 – Pattern Shifting
Congratulations, you completed today’s lesson on 10 Jazz Licks from Beginner to Pro. Not only have you gained experience playing 10 great jazz licks. You’ve also learned how to apply specific melodic techniques that will enable you to improvise with creativity and clarity.
If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
Course Series: 2-5-1 Soloing with…
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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¹ Steinel Mike. Building a Jazz Vocabulary : A Resource for Learning Jazz Improvisation. Hal Leonard 1995, p 3.
Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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